A Reply to Jan Narveson

By: Dr. Ned Hettinger, College of Charleston




There is at least one area of common ground that I believe Professor Narveson and I could fruitfully explore. Certain uses of land that alter its natural character cause harm to other humans, including other property owners. We agree that these are good grounds for prohibiting such uses. We will diverge about what is to count as harm. While we will agree that polluting uses of land that cause significant health problems for others is a harmful use that ought to be prevented, we will disagree on whether reducing biodiversity on the land causes others harm. He thinks this is not harm to other humans, I say that it is.

Here are some instances of what I consider harm that I would like Professor Narveson to consider. Filling a wetland on one¼s property so that the neighbors¼ property floods would seem to cause harm to neighbors. If there are bees on my property that pollinate my neighbor¼s crops and I threaten to destroy the bee hive, I am threatening my neighbor. Land provides many ecological services that spill over a landowner¼s property boundaries and the community at large has long depended on these services. My hope is that by reflecting on cases like these, Professor Narveson (and property rights advocates in general) will come to see that harm to other humans includes much more than simply damage to physical health. Consider a zoning case: Doesn't a property owner cause harm when he opens a strip joint next to a day care center? I think many more environmental regulations can be justified on the narrow grounds of harm to other humans than Professor Narveson allows. Preventing harm to other humans can justify quite strong environmental regulations provided one is not myopic in one¼s interpretation of harm.

A fundamental disagreement between the two of us is that Professor Narveson accepts anthropocentrism and I do not. He believes that only humans count morally and that what happens to nonhumans (including animals, plants, species, and ecosystems) is morally irrelevant, unless some human cares about it. On his view, concern for nonhuman nature for its own sake is an idiosyncratic aesthetic or religious preference that society has no right to impose on those who disagree. Environmental concern that extends beyond concern for humans is not a matter of right or wrong, but a mere matter of taste.

In the case of humans inflicting gratuitous suffering on nonhuman animals, anthropocentrism is a highly implausible view. It implies that the severe pain of an animal is morally irrelevant unless it bothers some human and that torturing a dog for fun, wrongs the dog's owner, not the dog. Professor Narveson is mistaken if he believes that it is inconsistent to hold that animals have moral status and to continue to eat them. Believing that animals have moral status does not mean they have equal moral status; nor does it mean that we must treat them the same way as we treat humans. The argument that animals have no moral standing because they cannot participate in the social contract entails that severely retarded humans have no moral standing either, because they too cannot participate in the social contract. This shows that the ability to reciprocate is not required in order to possess moral standing.

Direct moral standing and respect for plants, species, and nature as a whole is not as easy to establish as is the moral standing of sentient animals. But I believe that human democracies have a right to decide to require landowners to protect biodiversity on the land, as with the Endangered Species Act. Professor Narveson has a view of human rights such that most of what human democracies actually do violates peoples' rights, and this presumably includes legislating requirements that landowners act in a way that respects the land and the common good it constitutes. I do not believe that individuals have fundamental rights to destroy the land that democracies violate by imposing land use regulations that prevent such activities. Professor Narveson defends his view of the limited legitimacy of democratic decision-making with a discussion of the foundations of morality. Morality, he says, requires universal agreement. Professor Narveson constructs morality so that it will satisfy even the most selfish individual. I believe that morality should hold us to standards higher than that to which the most selfish among us is willing to agree.

Professor Narveson rejects the view that the earth is owned in common, arguing instead that it is, in the first instance, unowned. We agree that the earth was not given to humans for our use. What we disagree about is the kind of ownership individuals can come to have. I reject Professor Narveson¼s view that being the first to come upon some piece of land and to appropriate it gives one an absolute right to it. For example, the landless who come later have some claims on this land. That one mixed one's labor with extremely valuable land does not give one the right to own the mixture of the two, especially when this works to the disadvantage of others. Furthermore, as I argued in my paper, the features of the land that help create the common good (i.e., the land's ecological services) are held in trust by the landowner. Additionally, animals and plants with which we share the land also have some claims to it. In this sense, I believe the earth is owned in common.

There is one final point that Professor Narveson and I can to some extent share. Property rights, including rights to own land, are important. One valuable function they serve is to allow the individual some power to resist the human community. For example, they allow an individual to keep others at bay and to require police to show their warrants. In a world of exploding human population, this function becomes both more important and more dangerous. It is more important, because with more people, there is a greater need for protection from them. In a more crowded world, people need more separation from others and private property provides this independence. It is more dangerous because, with more and more people, what individuals do on their own property is increasingly likely to have negative cumulative effects on the community at large. Thus the community will need more control over what individuals do on their own property. As our world gets ever more crowded, the battle over property rights will escalate.


Updated: July 23, 1998

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